As March fades and the first quarter of 2012 comes to a close, Swampland has used this moment to look back on 2011 putting together our list of last year's best music releases from the South.
Although we've named 25 records on our Top 25 Albums of 2011, each one serves as sort of a best in category as well. There were so many strong releases that we will attempt to spread a bit of the wealth around - nearly 100 recordings are highlighted below.
So with no further ado, here are Swampland's Top 25 Albums of 2011 (in our own sort of alphabetical and categorical order):
A.A. Bondy "Believers" - The ex-lead singer of Birmingham's Verbena continues to release strong album after album. Believers marks Bondy's third release, and it pushes the envelope forward. Bondy has become one of the South's most compelling songwriters. Alabama songwriters were in the spotlight in 2011 thanks unexpected but well-deserved success of The Civil Wars' "Barton Hollow". A strong mention should also go to Grayson Capps and the Lost Cause Minstrels, another Alabama ex-pat who continues to write as well as anyone out there.
Amy LaVere "Stranger Me" - Memphis will always be an important Southern music center even if it might never produce another icon like Elvis Presley. Ms LaVere has paid her dues in the scene working with important mentors like the late Jim Dickinson. Her latest album is her most adventurous. For more great Memphis indie sounds, folks should also check out John Paul Keith's "The Man That Time Forgot".
Ben Sollee - "Inclusions" Sollee made a name for himself as part duo album with Daniel Martin Moore which was produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Sollee is a cellist, but like no other most have heard. His 2011 solo release showed the extents that acoustic music can take. Kentucky has a strong acoustic heritage and Sollee has added to that mantle. Kentucky produced several other fine 2011 releases including My Morning Jacket's "Circuital", Antietam's "Tenth Life", Bonnie Prince Billy's "Wolfroy Goes To Town", and Silver Tongues' "Black Kite". It was a sad year for Kentucky's music scene when the famed record store Ear X-Tacy closed it doors. However, artists like these will keep the Bluegrass State as a vital center of music.
Bobby Charles "Bobby Charles" - Although cliche to state at this point, Louisiana is indeed a musical gumbo that reflects that state's diverse culture. In terms of synthesizing Louisiana's musical strains, there a few more important artists than the late Bobby Charles. Charles wrote some of rock and roll's earliest songs ("See You Later Alligator" "Walking To New Orleans"), and he also was one of the first and only white artists signed to Chess Records. This album reissue of his first album, recorded in Woodstock, NY with members of the Band, is an important and necessary treasure. Other Louisiana artists made fine albums in 2011 like Lucinda Williams' "Blessed", Galactic's "The Other Side of Midnight", Tab Benoit's "Medicine", and Givers' "In Light" but the Charles reissue celebrates one of the most important hidden classics of Southern music.
Bryan Elijah Smith "One More Time" - The state of Virginia quietly lurked in the musical background in 2011. Except for a fine live album (Bruce Hornsby's "Bride of the Noisemakers") and a solid new Ned Oldham project ( Old Calf's "Borrow A Horse"), the state's wider known names didn't release anything new. This gave some new blood a chance, and Bryan Elijah Smith's latest self-released album rose to the top. Smith came across Swampland's radar screen after his contributions to another great 2011 Virginia release, Nathan Moore's "Dear Puppeteer". Seeking out Smith's own music revealed a gem of a musician who appears to be incredibly prolific to boot. His ragged acoustic style remains unique and compelling.
D Charles Speer & The Helix's "Leaving the Commonwealth" - D Charles Speer (aka Georgia-born Dave Shuford) emerged in 2011 as a potent musical force. Based in NYC these days, Speer release two divergent, but wildly creative albums this past year. Leaving the Commonwealth is the more accessible of the two, but Arghiledes is also well worth seeking out. Speer combines all sorts of Southern musical forms most often stripped of any veneer of sweetener. Another album released in 2011 by a Georgia artist living in NYC - Bird of Youth's "Defender" - also deserves note.
Drive-By Truckers "Go Go Boots" - Another year and another fine release from DBT. Go Go Boots becomes even more important as it marks the end of another era for the band. Bassist Shonna Tucker won't be going forward with DBT, and her playing, writing, and singing will be missed. Go Go Boots is the band's country soul record so Tucker's voice helped to realize the overall sound.
As we all look forward to DBT's next phase, the band deserves credit for all that they have influenced. DBT might sound more punk than Skynyrd, but they share that band's blue collar sensibilities influencing a generation of Southern bands across the spectrum. Many DBT-influenced bands released strong records 2011: Centro-matic's "Candidate Waltz", Jason Isbell's "Here We Rest", Ponderosa's "Moonlight Revival", Glossary's "Long Live All of Us". DBT's influence can also be felt on band's that tried to reach mainstream rock (Black Stone Cherry's "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea") and country (Whiskey Myers' "Firewater")
Foster & Lloyd "It's Already Tomorrow" - Nashville is known for its often strict country music traditions, but there has always been a left of center musical element lurking outside of Music Row. Although there were more than a few Nashville indie records worthy of mention - including KORT's "Invariable Heartache", James Leg's "Solitary Pleasure", and Wanda Jackson's "The Party Ain't Over" produced by Jack White - one of Nashville's original indie pop rebels reunited and made a damn fine record. Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd didn't stop making music when they previously broke up year ago, but their reunion record proved that together they make magic.
Glen Campbell "Ghost On The Canvas" - Many were crestfallen to hear about Glen Campbell's diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease. As a sign of great optimism amidst the sadness, Campbell released and toured his final album. Ghost On The Canvas becomes a touching and fitting tribute to a groudnbreaking pop artist who fused pop and country sounds in new and imaginative ways throughout his career. One of Campbell's most important songwriting voices also released a family record tying together his Oklahoma roots with his Southern California home of today. Jimmy Webb & The Webb Brothers' "Cottonwood Farm" found Webb working alongside different generations of the Webb musical family.
Ha Ha Tonka "Death Of A Decade" - Missouri showed its true Southern roots in 2011 when the state's flagship university joined the mighty SEC. 2011 also marked a fine year for Missouri music. Ha Ha Tonka's third album shows this young band in creative stride fusing its Ozark sound with a rock and roll fervor. Tonka edged out the Bottle Rockets' "Not So Loud" as that long time band released one of its finest albums by stripping things back in a live acoustic environment. Pokey LaFarge's "Middle of Everywhere" also deserve a strong mention as a part of Missouri's 2011 musical contribution.
Hank Williams "The Legend Begins" - More unreleased early Hank Williams music hit the racks in 2011. It's Hank. Nothing more need be said.
Jill Andrews "The Mirror" - Knoxville's Jill Andrews, late of the now defunct Everybodyfields, released her first full album in 2011. She carefully split the production duties on The Mirror between two of the South's rising producers. North Carolina's Scott Solter has worked on Centro-matic's 2011 release "Candidate Waltz" and the Mountain Goats while Neilson Hubbard (Nashville by way of MS) produced many including the fine 2011 debut release, The Apache Relay's "American Nomad." Solter and Hubbard's styles are different, but Andrews utilizes both of them perfectly on this fine set of songs. In a year of great female singer-songwriters, Jill Andrews showed she can stand among the best of them.
Jimbo Mathus "Confederate Buddha" - Mississippi native Jimbo Mathus has long been a southern music stylist from his earliest days leading the Squirrel Nut Zippers. 2011 found him dipping into the 1970s mining the Capricorn Sound. Mathus brought a fine set of songs and his band, the Tri-State Coaltion featuring members from Arkansas, Missouri, and Mississippi, gathers all the right sounds and energy to pull it off. North Mississippi Allstars, fellow Mississippi roots travelers, also released a potent new album, Keys To The Kingdom that should not be missed. Mississippi also delivered the idiosyncratic, but compelling release, El Obo's "Oxford Basement Collection"
Joe Henry "Reverie" - Joe Henry has become such an LA fixture, that many forget about his Georgia and North Carolina roots. Although better known to some as a producer these days, Henry has been making fine solo records for years. After his first era as more of a rootsy singer-songwriter, Henry delved into producing classic artists like Solomon Burke, Betty LaVette, and Mose Allison before beginning another series of solo recordings. This latest album from this group emerges as both challenging and rewarding combining elements of jazz with his literate songs. Joe Henry has become a treasure whose work should always be sought out.
Jonathan Wilson "Gentle Spirit" - This North Carolina native has been slowly establishing himself out in LA since moving there as part of the band Muscadine in the 90s. He's become known as the keeper of the Laurel Canyon musical tradition started back in the 60s. Wilson serves as a hub, producer, and confidant to folks like the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson andmany others. Wilson continues to produce fine records like 2011's Dawes' "Nothing is Wrong", as well as playing live with Robbie Robertson in support of his How To Become Clairvoyant album from last year. 2011 also found Wilson releasing his long awaited solo album Gentle Spirit. This sweeping songscape demonstrates the depth of Wilson's songwriting, singing, and playing.
Leon Russell "Live In Japan" - Leon Russell had his "comeback" album with Elton John in 2010, but the golden era of Leon's fine career can be found with the first official American release of this incredible live album. Unlike his Leon Live album which was also recorded during this period, Live In Japan features a less chaotic sound and brings an actual gospel vocal group for support. This seemingly slight difference makes the whole sound come together with perfection. Leon's signature Tulsa Sound has never been better. We should also mention the noteworthy Cody Canada & The Departed's "This is Indian Land" which is a tribute to Okie songwriters like Russell and the people he influenced.
Levon Helm "Ramble At The Ryman" - God bless Levon Helm. Since his reemergence from throat cancer a few years back, Levon has focused on making fine records with his Woodstock collaborators. Levon has also been bringing his Midnight Ramble's on the road to special locations including this live album from Nashville's famous Ryman Theater. Levon remains an American treasure deserving of the new audience he has found. Levon's Woodstock studio, the home of the Midnight Ramble, has become a recording hub producing the Gourds' "Old Mad Joy" fresh from Woodstock with Levon's right hand man Larry Campbell turning the knobs.
Matraca Berg "The Dreaming Fields" - Music City will always produce its share of fine records each year, and 2011 was no exception. There were notable ones from classic Nashville artists (Emmylou Harris's "Hard Bargain", Dolly Parton's "Better Day", Ronnie Milsap's "Country Again", and Connie Smith's "Long Line of Heartaches") and our favorite Nashville from Texas transplants (JD Souther's "Natural History", Steve Earle's "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive", and Guy Clarks "Songs and Stories"). However, it was cause for celebration when Matraca Berg released her first solo album in over a decade. Matraca connects old Nashville songwriting chops with singer-songwriter sensibilities on this set of deeply moving songs about life and aging. It's a big subject, but Berg handles it with grace revealing what may be 2011's finest release. Let's hope we don't have to wait quite as long for her next one.
Rich Robinson "Through A Crooked Sun" - Rich Robinson stands as one of the South's most underrated guitarists. Though he can play an incandescent lead, his approach has always been about supporting the song (which is probably because he is also a damn fine writer). The textures on Through A Crooked Sun show how Robinson uses his guitar to show power and nuance. Other fine Southern guitar slinger albums of note in 2011 were Damon Fowler's "Devil Got His Way" and Tab Benoit's "Medicine".
Tedeschi Trucks Band "Revelator" - The highly-anticipated debut album by Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi led combo did not disappoint. This married couple has musically collaborated in different ways over the years, but Revelator captured both their strengths and distills things down into amazing array of soul, rock, blues, and jazz. The writing is strong throughout showing how far both Derek and Susan have come in this area. While Warren Haynes' "Man In Motion" and Gregg Allman's "Low Contry Blues" were very strong Allman Brothers Band-related releases as well, Revelator gives us all a glimpse of how the Allman Brothers Band's fine musical legacy can last another four decades.
This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel 1957-1982 - As Jerry Wexler said many times, gospel music lies at the heart of rock n roll. There are always worthy gospel worth exploring, and 2011 did not disappoint. Tompkins Square served up this fiery compilation of gospel goodness that will have you singing in the aisles. Also worth seeking out are Said I Had A Vision: The Songs and Labels of David Lee and the Blind Boys of Alabama's "Take The High Road" which finds that classic group bringing some Nashville sound to its repertoire.
True Soul:Deep Sounds From The Left of Stax (Vol 1&2) - 2011 was a great year for Stax enthusiasts. That spawn of that seminal label gave us Packy Axton's "Late Late Party 1965-1967", Steve Cropper's "Dedicated", and Booker T's "The Road From Memphis" as well as modern day Memphis and Stax-influenced releases (Bo-Keys "Got To Get Back" and City Champs "The Set Up"). However, these two compilations from Lee Anthony's amazing True Soul label based across the river in Arkansas were revelatory showing that the Stax influence spread across the Mississippi River and beyond. Seek them out.
Vetiver "The Errant Charm" - North Carolina weighs in with another of their native sons now out in California. Vetiver's Andy Cabic bases himself in NoCal as opposed to Jonathan Wilson down in SoCal, but these guys are connected musically regardless, and both released a couple of 2011's best. Vetiver continues Cabic's tight George Harrison-influenced sound showing how welcoming a compact pop song can sound. North Carolina natives also gave us several other worthy 2011 releases - Mount Moriah "Mount Moriah", Mandolin Orange's "Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger", Crooked Fingers' "Breaks In The Armor", and Rosebuds' "Loud Planes Fly Low"
Vulture Whale "Long Time Listener First Time Caller" - Birmingham gets Swampland's MVP Music City for 2011. There were so many great albums that came out from Birmingham artists in 2011 that it was nearly impossible to pick just one for that city's Top 25 category. Ultimately, Vulture Whale's latest got the nod because VW unofficially serves as the house band for and founder of Ol Elegante Studios which has become the source point for so much of today's Birmingham sound. - Wooden Wand,, Maria Taylor's "Overlook", Great Book Of John, Through The Sparks' "Almanac (MMX) Year of Beasts", Wooden Wand's Briarwood (a collaboration between James Jackson Toth and the Gum Creek Killers), and two great 13ghosts albums (Liar's Melody and Garland of Bottle Flies).
Wooden Birds "Two Matchsticks" - We end our list with 2011's most brilliantly unassuming masterpiece. The Wooden Birds have struck a perfect balance on their second album making some of the warmest sounding acoustic pop in many a year. As Austin's music scene continues to transition as an alternative music incubator, Two Matchsticks makes for a worthy and important benchmark for others. As expected, Austin produced several more incredible releases in 2011 including Okkervil River's "I Am Very Far", Iron And Wine's "Kiss Each Other Clean", Old 97s "Grand Theatre Vol 2",Josh T Pearson's "Last Of The Country Gentlemen", and Jolie Holland's "Pint of Blood". Special note should also go to Robert Ellis Photographs who hails from Houston.
2011 EPs of note
Gum Creek Killers
Jesse Payne - "Buffalo"
Some Dark Holler
See the Swampland Review Archive for all of our reviews from years past and present